June 5th, 2021


Remembering Ronald Reagan

On June 5, 2004 (17 years ago today), Ronald Wilson Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, died at his home in Bel Air, California at the age of 93. He died from pneumonia, which was complicated by the Alzheimer's disease that he had been suffering from. Prior to his presidency, he had served as the 33rd Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, and before that he was a well-known radio, film and television actor.


Reagan was born on February 6, 1911. He was born in Tampico, Illinois, raised in Dixon, Illinois and attended Eureka College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology. After graduating, Reagan moved first to Iowa to work as a radio broadcaster and then, in 1937, to Los Angeles where he began a career as an actor, first in films and later in television. Some of his best known films include Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Kings Row (1942), and Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). He served as President of the Screen Actors Guild and later became the spokesman for General Electric. He got his start in politics during the time that he worked for GE. Originally he had been a member of the Democratic Party and was an admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But his positions began shifting to the right in the 1950s, and he became a member of the Republican Party in 1962.

Reagan delivered a very memorable in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy in 1964, known as "A Time for Choosing" that was admired by and inspired conservative Republicans. He was persuaded to seek the GOP nomination for Governor of California and he was elected to that office two years later. He won re-election in 1970. Reagan sought his party's nomination for President in 1968, but finished third behind Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. He tried again in 1976, losing to incumbent President Gerald Ford. Persevering, he won both the nomination and the Presidency in 1980, defeating incumbent Jimmy Carter.

As president, Reagan was proactive both politically and where the economy was concerned as well. His supply-side economic policies (called "Reaganomics" by the media) advocated reducing tax rates to spur economic growth, controlling the money supply to reduce inflation, deregulation of the economy, and reducing the size of the federal government. In his first term he survived an assassination attempt on March 30, 1981, only 69 days into his term. He also took a hard line against labor unions, threatening to fire striking air traffic controllers if they didn't return to their jobs. He also announced a "War on Drugs" and ordered an invasion of Grenada.

Ronald Reagan was re-elected in a landslide in 1984, running on a campaign which declared that it was "Morning in America". He won every state except for his opponent's home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia. His second term was primarily concerned by foreign policy matters, such as the ending of the Cold War, the 1986 bombing of Libya, and the revelation of the Iran–Contra affair. He publicly called the Soviet Union an "evil empire" and supported anti-communist movements worldwide. He moved away from his first term the strategy of détente, and ordered a massive military buildup in an arms race with the USSR. Reagan negotiated with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, culminating in the INF Treaty which decreased both countries' nuclear arsenals.


Reagan left office in 1989. Five years later, in 1994, the former president disclosed, in a public letter (shown above) that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease earlier that year. He dropped out of the public eye and died ten years later on June 5, 2004 at the age of 93. He remains a conservative icon, and generally ranks highly in public opinion polls of U.S. Presidents. He is credited for generating an ideological renaissance on the American political right and for leading the nation out of one of its worst economic periods, a time when interest rates were extraordinarily high and public morale was extraordinarily low. He is also fondly remembered for his civility and good humor and his infectious optimism.


Global Presidents: Ronald Reagan at the Brandenberg Gate

A week from now will mark the 34th anniversary of a famous moment in the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was on his successor George H. W. Bush's watch that the Cold War ended, but it was Reagan who played a major role in bringing about its end. It was on June 12, 1987 (34 years ago next Saturday) that President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin and called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall".


Since the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, the United States had relied on the qualitative superiority of its weapons to deter any aggressive action on the part of the Soviet Union. Over time the gap narrowed in the level of weaponry possessed by the two nations. This concerned President Reagan, who accelerated military spending and built up the nation's military arsenal. The Soviet Union did not similarly accelerate their military spending after President Reagan's military buildup, but regardless, their large military spending, along with collectivized agriculture and inefficient planned manufacturing, were a heavy burden for the Soviet economy. When Saudi Arabia increased its oil production, this resulted in a drop of oil prices in 1985 to one-third of the previous level. Oil had been a main source of Soviet export revenues. These factors contributed to a stagnant Soviet economy.

Reagan recognized the change in the direction of the Soviet leadership with Mikhail Gorbachev, and shifted from military posturing to diplomacy. His plan was to encourage the Soviet leader to pursue substantial arms agreements. He was able to start discussions on nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev. The two men held four summit conferences between 1985 and 1988: the first in Geneva, Switzerland, the second in Reykjavík, Iceland, the third in Washington, D.C., and the fourth in Moscow. Reagan believed that if he could persuade the Soviets to allow for more democracy and free speech, this would lead to reform and the end to Cold War tensions.

In a visit to West Berlin in June 1982, Reagan told the media, "I'd like to ask the Soviet leaders one question Why is the wall there?" Four years later in 1986, 25 years after the construction of the wall, Reagan was asked by the West German newspaper Bild-Zeitung when he thought the wall could be "torn down". Reagan said, "I call upon those responsible to dismantle it today".

In June of 1987, Reagan visited Berlin once again. On the day before Reagan's visit, 50,000 people had demonstrated against Reagan's presence in Berlin. During the visit itself, sections of Berlin were closed off to prevent further anti-Reagan protests. The district of Kreuzberg, in particular, was targeted, with movement throughout this portion of the city in effect restrained completely. The subway line to this section of the city was was shut down.

A debate occurred among Reagan's advisers about his call for the wall to come down. Several senior staffers and aides advised against the phrase, saying anything that might cause further East-West tensions or potential embarrassment to Gorbachev should be left out. Reagan had built a good relationship with Gorbachev and some were concerned that this type of confrontation would make further cooperation between the two more difficult. But American officials in West Germany and presidential speechwriters, including Peter Robinson, thought otherwise. Robinson had traveled to West Germany as part of the advance work for the trip. He went to inspect potential speech venues, and formed the opinion that the majority of West Berliners opposed the wall. Robinson decided to keep the phrase in the speech text. On May 18, 1987, President Reagan met with his speechwriters and responded to the speech by saying, "I thought it was a good, solid draft." White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker objected, saying that the speech sounded "extreme" and "unpresidential". Deputy US National Security Advisor Colin Powell agreed. But Reagan liked the passage. He had the last word and said, "I think we'll leave it in."

The President and the First Lady arrived in Berlin on June 12, 1987. They were taken to the Reichstag, where they viewed the Berlin Wall from a balcony. Reagan then made his speech at the Brandenburg Gate at 2:00 pm, in front of two panes of bulletproof glass. Among those present were West German president Richard von Weizsäcker, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and West Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen.

In his speech that day, Reagan said:

"We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Later on in his speech, President Reagan said, "As I looked out a moment ago from the Reichstag, that embodiment of German unity, I noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner, 'This wall will fall. Beliefs become reality.' Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom." In the same speech he called for an end to the arms race. He mentioned the Soviets' SS-20 nuclear weapons, and the possibility "not merely of limiting the growth of arms, but of eliminating, for the first time, an entire class of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth."

At the time, the speech received relatively little coverage from the media. It wasn't until 1989, after the wall came down, that the speech was referenced as a turning point in history. While little was said about the speech in Western media, this was in contrast with the reaction in Germany and in eastern Europe. East German Politburo member Guenter Schabowski considered the speech to be "absurd", and the Soviet press agency TASS accused Reagan of giving an "openly provocative, war-mongering speech." Former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he would never forget standing near Reagan when he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Kohl recalled: "He was a stroke of luck for the world, especially for Europe."

Reagan later said that the East German police not allowing people to get near the wall, which prevented many of their citizens from experiencing the speech at all. When the speech was put in the context of Reagan's overtures to the Soviet Union at the Reykjavik summit the previous year, the speech was very significant.


In 1989, a series of revolutions in Poland and Hungary in particular led to several weeks of civil unrest in East Germany. On November 9, 1989, the East German government announced that all German citizens could visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed onto the Wall, joined by West Germans on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. Over the next few weeks, euphoric people and souvenir hunters chipped away parts of the Wall. The governments of both Germanys later used industrial equipment to remove most of what was left of the wall. The fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for German reunification, which was formally concluded on October 3, 1990. Portions of the Berlin Wall can be viewed today at the Presidential Libraries of Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley, California, and of George H. W. Bush at College Station, Texas.

Below is a YouTube video of a portion of President Reagan's speech: